群星會 (Stardust), 1970
Disapproving Chinese mother disapproves of sensationalistic articles about her child-rearing methods (screen cap from Stardust (群星會), i.e. The Greatest Movie of Our Time).

So much has been written about Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal piece “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” in the Asian American blogosphere that I was reluctant to add my opinion. The article is an excerpt from her memoir and I don’t want to give any more publicity to someone who seems to be feeding into a cultural stereotype — and taking it to the extreme — in order to sell books to a (presumably) mostly non-Asian audience. I find that kind of cynicism almost as offensive as I find some of the parenting methods Chua says are “Chinese.” (Yes, I have read the book, not just the excerpt.)

But I want to say this: yes, “typical” Chinese mothers may be hard to please. Yes, painful cultural conflicts abound when you are a kid being raised by Asian parents in a Western society. But there is a difference between “tough love” and “bat shit crazy” — and some of the so-called Chinese child husbandry techniques Chua describes are actually a huge brick of crazy wrapped up in a thick layer of bat shit by any cultural standards.

I find it problematic that Chua ascribes her most dubious examples to being of Chinese descent, rather than her own background or personal shortcomings. (I know this can lead us into a wider discussion about culture and its impact on individual identity and actions, and Chua’s memoir goes into greater detail about her upbringing and eventual realization that her self-defeatingly authoritarian parenting style was the product of her own anxiety, but ultimately her narrative hook and the book’s marketing center around the trope of “crazy hard-ass Chinese mother.”) Anyone who believes traditional Chinese parenting is synonymous with breaking your child’s will is operating from a very narrow and misinformed point of view. I hate it when people use cultural relativism as an excuse for bad decisions, especially when their understanding of the culture in question is specious and conveniently subjective. Just because Chua’s book is a memoir and not a parenting guide does not absolve her from lazy generalizations, nor does Chua’s sarcastic sense of humor. 

(Chua was also born, raised and schooled in the US, so I feel the need to point out that a lot of Chinese people — i.e. those in China — would think that she, like me, is about as Chinese as PF Chang’s, as one Gawker commenter put it. I’m being cheeky here, but take a look at how her book is being marketed in China!)

The Northern California community where I grew up was “model minority” ground zero and the Asian parents I knew had dauntingly high standards for academic achievement and behavior. I know many of my Asian American peers also felt frustrated and hurt by their parents’ seeming inability to express affection or encouragement. Many of my friends had parents who refused to let them take more than one art elective per year, score less than a 95% on a test or enroll in any course that wasn’t honors or AP level. I saw classmates in tears over getting an A- on a practice quiz.

But any mother (or father) who pulled the kind of bat shit crazy shenanigans that Chua describes would have been labeled by most other Asian parents as… bat shit crazy. Not Chinese. Not Asian. Not even traditional. Bat shit crazy. Every time their kids complained, they would have said, “At least I’m not like Chua aiyi. You know, the one who won’t let her daughters go to your slumber party or pee until they master that one extreme complicated melodic passage in their piano recital piece? Yeah, you have it easy compared to them, so stop whining!” In fact, I bet there are thousands of Chinese-Americans parents e-mailing that article to their kids right now, with a note saying, “Hey, at least I wasn’t that bad!”

Laura from Taiwan-Born American wrote an excellent response to Chua’s piece. In it she says, “I think the space we negotiate as second-generation Asian-Americans, as products of our home cultures and our Western cultures, is enriched by our perspectives of both.” That’s very true and that is a privilege. Conversations about cultural differences in child-rearing often speak about a dichotomy between Chinese parenting and Western parenting, but most white people I know didn’t have parents who let them play video games for hours on end and most Asian people didn’t have moms who seemed grimly intent on destroying their will.

I think one thing missing from many narratives about Asian moms, especially those written for a mostly non-Asian audience, is examples of how they are just as doting and idiosyncratic (i.e. human) as any other mother. I read My Mom is a Fob and My Dad is a Fob regularly because, in addition to the LOLs, both are filled with sweetness. One positive thing that has come out of the response to the Chua article is the different anecdotes Asian-Americans have related about their own parents. They really make it clear that “Chinese parenting” doesn’t follow one model. Two of my favorite posts include Laura’s and Jenny Zhang’s piece for Jezebel. On the flip side, there is also Christine Lu’s devastating account of her sister’s suicide and their mother’s reaction on Quora.com.

Reading Chua’s book made me more thankful than ever for my parents. We had plenty of drama, conflict and heartache when I was growing up, but ultimately they gave my brother and me the greatest gift parents can give their children: trust.

My parents didn’t pride themselves on being “typical Chinese parents.” They prided themselves on being Catherine and Michael’s parents. They were dedicated to navigating the space between their culture and ours, no matter how difficult and painful the balancing act must have been sometimes. As a result, we didn’t see things in terms of “Chinese” versus “Western”; my parents always understood that things are much more complicated than that. They didn’t try to use culture as an excuse to shirk personal responsibility. The expectations they had of us and the standards they set were based on their understanding of us — and of themselves — as individuals.

That approach to child-rearing may not make for a provocative, easily marketable book, but it did result in happy, hard-working children who love their Mom and Dad. Both of us are grateful for our upbringing.

Heck, I even have a master’s degree from an Ivy League university. My brother is only 28 and owns a thriving cinematography and production company. We didn’t do those things because we’re Asian or because our parents wanted us to… they are stepping stones to larger goals we have for ourselves. And you know what? Even if I didn’t have that degree and even if my brother didn’t have his company, my parents would still love us.

I trust my parents, too, and so I listen to them and value their opinion, even if we disagree. I want to please them not because I fear their Wrath of Asian Parenthood, but because if they are happy for me, then I know I must be on the right path. Isn’t that what any parents, regardless of cultural background, wants for their child?

ETA: Jeff Yang interviewed Chua for the SF Gate about her response to the response to the WSJ article and Chua had this to say:

“”I was very surprised,” she says. “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.”

And she adds:

“I now believe there’s a hybrid way of parenting that combines the two paradigms, but it took me making a lot of mistakes along the way to get there.”

I think that it’s disingenuous of Chua to act as if she — a Yale Law School professor who had already authored two books — didn’t know that the WSJ editor would present excerpts from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” to hook in as much readers as possible. It doesn’t take a PhD in media studies to know that there is a certain amount of nuance, subtlety and narrative that is lost when you condense a 256 page volume into a newspaper-length article. But, having read the book, I would argue that the WSJ article is not that dramatically different in tone. And it’s certainly helped sales.

Without flogging the Western/Chinese parenting dichotomy (one that is constructed out of facile stereotypes), all you would have is a short memoir about a overzealous mother who eventually backs down after her 13-year-old daughter rebels. Yes, it shows self-awareness, but that story would probably be too ordinary to market. On the plus side, she is actually quite self-deprecating and charming — certainly not the soulless monster some commentators have made her out to be. She should probably stay away, however, from writing parenting memoirs.